Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4
A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.
Chapter 5: The Truest Friends
Even when women formed partnerships that did not overtly pattern themselves on marriage (as with the "female husband" motif), the shapes of their relationships are sometimes highly suggestive of a marriage-like bond (or at least a sexual/romantic one) even when there is no positive evidence in that direction (or even, sometimes, the women themselves reject that framing).
* * *
In this chapter Donoghue examines texts, both fictional and biographical that examine close and long-term friendships between women. The selection here is focuses on the complexity and difficulties of real lives rather than those that idealize friendship.
One genre concerns the relationships that form in mutual devotion to some third party, especially in a religious context. The work of Mary Astell is an example. Astell often expressed her human friendships in stronger terms than her intense passion for God and then, when finding the former not reciprocated, considered it a judgment on this. This tone changes when Astell bonds with Lady Catherine Jones, to whom her publications are dedicated, and Astell found an enhanced and very personal spiritual fulfillment from their devotion together.
In the novel "Some Particulars Relating to the Life and Death of Rebecca Scudamore" (1790) the title character and her protegée Sarah, through many trials, find religious devotion to be their path to togetherness. The use of religious-tinged language to justify close friendships is also seen in the response of Eliza Frances Robertson to accusations related to her relationship with her friend and partner in a school. The school’s financial difficulties seem to have been one precipitating factor for the accusations, but charges against Robertson that she was sexually promiscuous, a man, a cross-dresser, or a lesbian (presumably not all at once!) indicate that the women’s relationship had come under scrutiny. Robertson held up Biblical examples such as Ruth and Naomi and even Christ and his most favored disciples as support for not merely the acceptability of close same-sex friendship, but its desirability.
The long and tempestuous relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough has been mentioned earlier. This chapter examines it through Churchill’s memoirs, where she tracks and justifies the nature and changing fortunes of their friendship. When Anne turned away from Churchill and seemed to replace her in her affections with Abigail Hill Masham, Churchill’s statements regarding the rumors that this was a lesbian relationship would seem to contradict the interpretation that her own relationship with Anne had sexual aspects. And yet the overall shape of that relationship--including intense passions and fierce jealousies--is indistinguishable from a romantic one.
A pamphlet satirizing Masham--most likely put out at the instigation of Churchill--shows some of the stratagems an upper class lesbian (wither Masham was one or not) might find herself taking. The fictionalized Masham is made to confess that she is “rather addicted to another sort of passion, of having too great a regard for my own sex, insomuch that few people thought I would ever have married.” Whereupon she determines to enter a marriage of convenience to throw off the scent. Whatever the facts in this particular case, it is clear that the audience for this satire accepted that a woman might be exclusively sexually attracted to other women, and that such a woman might be expected to avoid marriage or to use it only as a blind.
The long-term partnership between actress Charlotte Cibber Charke and her actress “friend” identified in Charke’s memoirs only by the alias “Mrs. Brown” (Charke used the alias “Mr. Brown” when cross-dressing) is given in some detail. Overall, it is the story of two women supporting each other financially and emotionally through adventures and difficulties. Together they raise Charke’s daughter from a very brief early marriage.
A less happy theatrical partnership is told in the biography The Memoirs of Sophia Baddeley which tells how Sophia is constantly cared for, looked after, and rescued by her close friend Elizabeth Hughes Steele who, it is clear, has a deep and rather dysfunctional passion for her. Although Sophia returns her affection and is always deeply distressed at the thought of being separated from Elizabeth, she is also repeatedly drawn to abusive or exploitive men, or simply to the benefits of being mistress to wealthy patrons, much to Elizabeth’s distress and censure. The pair eventually drifts apart, but Elizabeth is still repeatedly drawn back into Sophia’s life as rescuer or nurse until Sophia dies of consumption.
Devoted friendships across class lines most typically involve a supportive and loyal devotion on the part of the lower class partner, but two literary examples follow a more complex script. In Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) the maid Amy begins as Roxana’s devoted servant, but as they make their way in the world, with Roxana setting up as a courtesan, they eventually become more equal as business partners. There is no direct suggestion of a sexual relationship between the two, but the possibilities are suggested in the parallelism of their lives. Eventually they fall out over Amy’s fierce protectiveness of Roxana against Roxana’s own daughter.
The second story “The Unaccountable Wife” appears in a collection of tales (A Patchwork Screen for Ladies, 1723). A married woman becomes “unaccountably” enamored of her servant who was also her husband’s mistress, and turns their roles upside down to cater to the servant woman and do her chores for her and so forth. When family friends pressure the husband to send the servant away, the wife goes with her and they set up housekeeping together and, through various other incidents, the two remain together the rest of their lives. Although framed as an incomprehensible role-reversal, it’s hard not to read the story of two women’s devotion outlasting the barriers in their way.